October 3, 2014


The synod on the family

Marriage is in trouble. It has been for some time.

That’s why Pope Francis called an “extraordinary” meeting of the Synod of Bishops focused on the family that will start in Rome on Oct. 5 and continue to Oct. 19.

It’s a reason there will be a World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia which the pope will probably attend, next September. It’s why there will be an “ordinary” assembly of the Synod of Bishops, still on the subject of the family, next October. It’s why Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin has written a series of columns about the family in The Criterion. It’s why Pope Francis will likely write an apostolic exhortation on the family after next year’s assembly.

The “extraordinary” meeting of the synod is outside the regular cycle of such meetings while the “ordinary” assembly is within the regular cycle. About 150 bishops, Vatican officials and observers, including some married couples, will attend the meeting while about 250 or more people will be participants next year.

We’re all familiar with the fact that fewer people are marrying these days. Our society has become accustomed to people introducing the person they’re living with as “my boyfriend” or “my girlfriend,” although sometimes it’s “my fiancé.” There were 6.5 million such households in the United States in 2009. Forty percent of all U.S. births are now to unmarried women.

This has happened at the same time as the movement to redefine marriage to include couples of the same sex has gained strength both in federal courts and large segments of society.

The synod meetings aren’t going to change all that, but the Catholic Church hopes it can at least do something about Catholics’ attitudes toward marriage. And that’s not much better than the secular view. Since 2000, the number of marriages in the Church has dropped from 261,000 to 154,000.

The number of marriage annulment cases in our tribunals has fallen from a high of 72,000 in 1990 to 25,000 in 2011. But that’s because Catholics aren’t bothering to get married in the first place, or don’t get married in the Church, or don’t bother with trying to get an annulment if the marriage doesn’t work out.

This is what is happening in the United States, but it’s similar in other parts of the world, especially in Europe.

Besides grappling with these problems and trying to figure out how to present the good news about God’s vision for marriage and family life in an attractive way, the synod assemblies will also consider the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics. Specifically, when, if ever, can they receive Communion?

In preparation for discussions on that topic, in February, Pope Francis asked Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian, to give a two-hour presentation to the College of Cardinals on how it might be possible. Cardinal Kasper has spoken on this topic to other groups, including during a lecture at Boston College on May 1.

He makes it clear that no one, not even the pope, can change the doctrine of the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage. However, he said at Boston College, “Doctrine must be applied with prudence in a just and equitable way to concrete and often complex situations.”

Then he added, “So the question is: If a person after divorce enters into a civil second marriage, but then repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the Church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness?”

However, another German theologian, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, would answer “yes” to Cardinal Kasper’s question. He opposes attempts to change the present practice. Other cardinals, bishops and theologians have also done so recently.

Who knows what will come out of the assemblies or what decisions Pope Francis will make afterward? We must hope and pray that the participants can discover some solutions to the serious problems.

—John F. Fink

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